Jeff sat in his Lexus and drummed his fingers anxiously against his steering wheel. He was parked in the Greendale Community College student lot way too early for his first class. He was supposed to be meeting Annie in the library in fifteen minutes but he was having a hard time making himself get out of his car. He leaned forward, resting his head against the steering wheel, thinking hard about how much he actually needed this semester’s worth of credits. After a moment, he blew a breath through his pursed lips. He needed those credits pretty badly. If he didn’t screw it up, this would be his last semester at Greendale. His life for the past three years had been almost all consumed with getting this degree and the finish line was in sight. Letting a little anxiety over the study group stand in his way would be the dumbest thing he’d ever done, and he’d done a lot of very stupid things.
Resolved, he shut off the car and got out, kicking the car door shut behind him. He was halfway to the library before he remembered that it was actually quite a lot of anxiety. He kept his eyes down as he walked, his feet automatically routing him in the direction of the study room. He could walk this path blindfolded if he had to. This school was his second home and in years past he had arguably spent more time on campus than he had in his actual place of residence.
He took a deep breath and shoved open the front door of the library and stepped inside. Greendale might be his second home, but it housed his first family, or rather, the family he chose. But, like an actual family, he was sure there were some transgressions that just wouldn’t fly.
He nervously peeked through the windows of study room F, half expecting to be met with the judgmental stares of his friends having already figured out his secret, only to find the room mysteriously vacant. He stood up straighter and glanced around.
His phone vibrating drew his attention away from the eerily vacant room. It was like being in the city right before a big storm, too still and quiet. He tore his eyes away from the sight of their empty chairs, focusing on the phone in his hand.
He looked up from the text, eyes searching until they landed on a woman’s face framed in brown. Her big blue eyes sparkled teasingly as she peeked out at him from behind a tall bookshelf tucked into the corner.
His body responded to her presence without his command, relaxing into a sense of ease, his nerves all but forgotten. But of course, he was Jeff Winger, so he theatrically rolled his eyes while half-heartedly trying to control the smile that tugged at his lips. He glanced cautiously over his shoulder once before making his way over to her and ducked behind the shelf.
“Vague much?” he asked, holding up his phone with her ambiguous text message still on display.
Annie reached out and grabbed the front of his sweater, pulling him further back into the recesses of the shelves with a patiently indulgent smile on her lips. “I was trying to be covert.”
He willingly submitted to her, allowing himself to be led deeper into their shared hiding place. There wasn’t much Annie could do that he wouldn’t willingly submit to. Over the years he’d slowly learned to accept that fact, which also happened to be how they’d found themselves in this particular conundrum in the first place. But really, he should have seen this coming. Annie Edison could bring whole cities to their knees if she wanted to. Why should he have thought he would be any different? “Is this supposed to be the start of another Greendale caper for us to team up on?” he joked. “Or has the relationship already gotten so stale that you need to spice things up with made-up espionage?”
“Oh, shut up,” she laughed, raising up on tip-toes to press a quick kiss to his lips. “Good morning, by the way.”
He returned her smile, his hands finding her waist and holding her close. “Good morning,” he echoed, leaning in for another kiss. “Is this why we’re hiding back here? Because I think I’m okay with that.”
She giggled against his lips. “I’m being careful,” she answered, pulling away just a fraction. “I didn’t know what you’d decided. You know, about telling people.”
Jeff’s smile faltered. Ah. Back to reality. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He dropped her waist and stepped away, putting distance between them. He suddenly needed the space. He didn’t like hiding it any more than she did, but Annie also tended towards naivete when it came to their friends. “They’re not going to like this. At all.”
“They’re our friends,” she said, her voice full of that patented Annie Edison Optimism. “Sure, it might be a bit of a shock at first, but they’ll be happy for us.”
Jeff glanced away, scrubbing his fingers through the back of his hair. “I wish I had your confidence.”
“I don’t get why you think they’re going to be mad. It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong.”
Jeff pulled a face. “Define wrong. A seventeen-year age gap where the younger party is in her early twenties would be a pretty serious offense to more people than you think,” he said, still not quite meeting her eye. “I’ve got a history, you know. With you and –” he cleared his throat once, quickly, “Others. I’m not worried that they’ll be mad at us. I’m worried about me. It’s my head that’s on the chopping block.”
Annie sighed. They’d had this same conversation on more than one occasion over the summer and he knew that she was sick of it. She just couldn’t fathom the study group turning on him the way that he could. He very much hoped that their relationship would be accepted easily, but he sort of doubted it. Annie, however, was an optimist, through and through.
She watched him thoughtfully for a moment before speaking, “Still leaving it up to you. But I think we should tell them.” Jeff only nodded in response.
After another quiet moment, Annie checked her phone and inclined her head towards the study room. “Come on. The others will be waiting.”
Jeff pulled himself together and followed her out from behind the shelf, moving in the direction of study room F. Out of habit he stepped forward, reaching the door first to hold it open for her. She smiled up at him as she passed, lightly brushing her fingers against his chest in thanks. He once again tried and failed to control the smile that formed on his lips.
As Annie had predicted, the study group was indeed already assembled, seated in their usual spots around the table. Britta, Troy, Pierce, and Shirley all smiled at them as they entered and called out greetings. Abed, however, watched them carefully, his eyebrows drawn. Jeff felt the hair prick up on the back of his neck but he shrugged it off. Abed was like that sometimes. It probably didn’t mean anything.
As they took their seats, Jeff noticed that Britta was wearing her ridiculous non-prescription hipster glasses again. An impish grin worked its way onto his face. Maybe a quick bout of semi-malicious mocking was all he needed to get the world back on track. He opened his mouth to tease her, but Abed interrupted him. “Annie and Jeff are secretly dating,” he announced.
There was a beat of stunned silence then everyone was talking at once.
“Abed!” Annie shouted across the table, looking stunned.
“What are you talking about?” Pierce questioned. “We would know if those two were together!”
“Wait, you were lying to us all summer?” Troy directed at Annie.
“Jeff?” Britta’s quiet question cut through the din.
Jeff turned to her and opened his mouth but nothing came out. This was exactly what he had been worried about. This group was incapable of reacting to things like normal people. “We –”. And apparently so was he. He could feel the group’s eyes on him as he struggled to find his voice. Why was it so hard to just tell them? The cat was out of the bag. Whatever happened now was out of his hands. But he still couldn’t get the words to his lips.
“Abed,” Shirley said, shifting her attention away from Jeff. “Would you please explain since clearly Jeff won’t?”
Annie crossed her arms over her chest and glared daggers at her roommate. Abed tilted his head slightly, looking at her as he spoke. “Well, you two were spending a lot of time together this summer. More than you usually do.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Annie argued.
Abed shook his head. “No, but you hum a lot and make pancakes in the mornings when you’re in a relationship and you’ve been doing that for weeks.”
Annie’s mouth dropped open. “What –”
“Also,” Abed continued, cutting off Annie’s response. “You and Jeff both got here early, but you weren’t waiting for us in the study room. I saw you hiding behind the bookshelves together and you casually touched him when you walked in.” He paused and pointed a finger at Jeff. “And, Jeff didn’t deny it.”
All eyes were back on Jeff.
“Jeffery,” Shirley prompted, her voice stern.
Jeff curled his hands into fists and tried to keep his expression neutral. He looked up at Shirley. “We’ve been seeing each other all summer,” he finally confirmed.
“Jeffery!” Shirley said, her voice angry and disapproving. “I thought you two were over all of this. And why do you keep wanting to mess around with younger women?”
Jeff let out a huff and rolled his eyes. He knew how this must look to everyone else, but it wasn’t like that. He wasn’t stupid, he knew he had a reputation, but Shirley assuming he was just ‘messing around’ with Annie made him want to flip the table. They must have their blinders on tighter than his had ever been if they really hadn’t seen this coming.
“Makin’ your way around the table, huh?” Pierce said with a mix of admiration and annoyance. “Who’s next? Shirley or A-bed?”
Jeff grit his teeth, biting back the angry noise that was rising up in his throat. “Just so you’re all aware,” he said as coolly as he could manage, his eyes sweeping the table, “we’re not sleeping together. Way to jump to conclusions.” It wasn’t any of their business, but if that was their issue then he’d be more than happy to be an open book. There were plenty of reasons for them to be upset about this but her ‘innocence’ was not one of them.
Britta made a noise of disbelief and Jeff turned on her with his jaw set. He’d never hit a woman before…
“Guys, stop!” Annie slammed her hands on the table, drawing their attention back to her. “This is so stupid. Can’t you just be happy for us?”
“Annie!” Jeff interrupted, his temper suddenly boiling to the surface. “Enough with the positivity, okay? You were wrong. Just stop!” He regretted it before he’d even finished speaking. He really hadn’t meant to snap like that. He’d just been wound so tight for so long. He looked up at Annie and almost flinched. Her injured expression was like a knife between his ribs. His anger was gone now, disappearing faster than it had come, leaving him deflated. He hadn’t meant any of that.
Jeff took a breath to speak, but Troy interrupted. “Woah!” he shouted, cutting off Jeff’s apology before he could even begin.
“What’s wrong with you?” Shirley hissed at him.
“Watch the tone, Jack Torrence,” Pierce threatened.
Okay, that one hit just a little too close to home for him. And it stung even more that it was Pierce who’d said it. This whole situation was going downhill fast which meant one thing: Time to bail. He hated to admit it, but Annie’s optimism had started to get to him and now he didn’t know what to do.
“Jeff, this isn’t right.”
Jeff was halfway out of his chair, ready to bolt, when Shirley’s words made him freeze. He’d told Annie that this would happen and she hadn’t listened. He knew he couldn’t have been the only one uncomfortable with this whole thing. But those stupidly beautiful eyes had drawn him in. When the siren that was beckoning you to your end was Annie Edison, fighting it just wasn’t an option. He looked up at Shirley, calmly meeting her eye. “At least we can agree on that.”
He finished getting to his feet without waiting for a response and shot Annie a quick apologetic look. “I’ll see you in class,” he murmured before swiftly making his exit. He really needed to be alone.
“Jeff!” Annie called at his back, getting to her feet as if to follow him. He didn’t stop. He either hadn’t heard or didn’t want to. She hesitated. Obviously, she and Jeff had a lot they needed to talk about, but she had some something she had to take care of first. She turned to glare at her friends. “You guys wouldn’t even know how to pretend to be supportive, would you?”
“Uh, we were defending you?” Britta said.
“Well don’t!” Annie snapped. “I don’t need you to defend me. I can take care of myself!”
“I’m just trying to be on your side!” Britta agued adamantly. “I’ve been in your shoes. I know what it’s like to be attracted to jerks. Maybe it’s the bad boy thing, maybe not, but whatever the reason, it’s always bad news.”
“Dating Jeff is not bad news!”
“‘Men are monsters who crave young flesh’. I wonder who I was quoting there?” Britta shot back heatedly.
“Doesn’t the age difference bother you?” Troy asked.
Annie shot him an annoyed look. “Does Britta’s age bother you?”
“Hey!” Britta interjected but Annie ignored her.
“We’re happy together. So why can’t you just be happy for us?”
“Remember the monster quote?” Britta asked. “How can you be sure he’s not just taking advantage of you?”
Annie had to count to ten before she could speak. “If taking me to dinner and watching stupid movies together is taking advantage, then sure, that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
“Wait,” Britta looked confused. “Backtrack. You’re really not sleeping together?”
“It’s none of your business, but no, we’re not!”
“I think what Britta meant,” Shirley said, shooting the blonde a look, “Is that your crush on Jeff has been pretty well documented. You guys have a history. One that doesn’t exactly show him in the best light. We’re just concerned about it.”
Annie shook her head. “But that’s just how it looks to you guys. That’s not how it is for us. Think about it from his perspective.”
Everyone but Abed rolled their eyes. He was staring at Annie, his mind whirring. “Jeff’s in love with Annie.”
The table groaned, but Annie’s eyes widened. “In love?” Her voice was quiet, watching Abed carefully. He nodded. She guessed she knew Jeff loved her just like she loved him, but in love was a different thing entirely.
“Whatever, Abed,” Britta said, getting to her feet and slinging her bag over her shoulder. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Annie wanted to point out that they’d believed Abed without proof just ten minutes ago, but she couldn’t seem to remember how to speak anymore. Her head was still ringing with those two simple words. In love. If Abed had noticed it then it was probably true, which meant there were things think about.
Annie looked up to find that she was the only one still seated at the table. The rest of her friends had gotten up and were heading for class. Troy stood alone in the doorway waiting for her. She quickly gathered up her books and stuffed them into her backpack before hurrying out the door towards their history class, Troy at her side.
Troy walked alongside Annie in silence, lost in thought. Finding out that Jeff and Annie were dating had made him irrationally angry and it wasn’t entirely about Jeff’s outburst. Although that was a good part of it. He was way past any potential crush he’d had brewing for her, so why else would he be so mad? As they neared the classroom he realized that he was mostly upset because she’d hid it from him. He was also mad because as her friend, he wanted her to be happy and he didn’t want to see her hurt. But now here he was being the one to do the hurting. That wasn’t what he was supposed to do.
“Hey,” he said gently, taking Annie’s arm and pulling her to a stop outside their classroom. Their friends were already inside. He could feel their eyes on him as they stood in the doorway. Troy nodded in the direction of Jeff’s chair. “You sure he’s treating you right?”
Annie blinked at him for a moment, like she had been lost in her own head, too. Her eyes followed his gesture and when they landed on Jeff she smiled. “I’m sure,” she answered. “You just caught him on a bad day. He makes me happy.”
Troy nodded once in resignation. “Alright then. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”
He shrugged. “You’re like my little sister or something, Annie. I’m weirdly protective of you. Even if sometimes I don’t have a good reason to be. So, sorry I jumped all over Jeff’s case this morning. And not that you need it, but you have my blessing or whatever.”
Annie’s eyes were bright. “You mean it?”
She threw her arms around him. “Thank you!” she said, her voice muffled against the fabric of his shirt.
He smiled despite himself and wrapped his arms around her tiny frame. It was impossible to stay mad at Annie, she was just too… Annie. He guessed he couldn’t really fault Jeff for wanting to be with her, especially if he was the reason for her smile. “Just tell us next time something big happens, okay?” Troy said, stepping out of their embrace. “Only guilty people hide things. Well, I guess pirates hide treasure – Anyway, we’re roommates, Annie. That’s a sacred bond. We could’ve kept it a secret. Abed and I are always on your side, you know.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
Troy nodded towards the classroom. “We should probably go learn about dead people now.”
Annie smiled and skipped ahead of him into the classroom, happily taking her seat.
“Let me walk you to class.”
Annie looked up from her backpack where she was carefully packing away her things. She had a system. Class had only just ended, but Jeff was already at her side. A half smile touched her lips as she stood up, swinging her bag over her shoulders. “How chivalrous.”
Jeff grinned. “Well. You know me.”
She grinned teasingly back. “Yes, I do. Hence the surprise.”
He rolled his eyes hard and headed for the door, leading the way out while completely ignoring their friends. Annie pretended she couldn’t feel their eyes on her back as they walked. This was just new to them. They’d settle down eventually. All in all, class had gone surprisingly well. No one had caused any further drama, so that was a welcome surprise.
“Where are we headed?” Jeff asked, shortening his stride so that she could walk beside him.
“This way,” Annie said, taking the lead. They were headed to her first forensics class. Normally she would have been more excited about it, talking Jeff’s ear off about this new professor who was actually supposed to be really good by more than just Greendale standards, but her mind was elsewhere.
“So,” she began, “I think class went really well, don’t you?”
He shrugged. “Tough to tell. I usually tune out the whole first day. And a British history professor? That’s a little hackneyed, don’t you think?”
It took her a second to catch up. “What? No, I meant with the group. Everyone seemed to have really calmed down. I think this will all blow over soon.”
Jeff looked less than convinced.
“Troy even apologized,” Annie added.
“Yeah, to you.”
“You didn’t exactly stick around long enough for anyone to have the chance to.” Jeff glanced sideways at her stern look before turning his eyes front again.
“I have a phone.”
She sighed. He was impossible sometimes.
As they reached her classroom she started to say her goodbyes when Jeff pulled her aside, his face serious. “Hey, so listen,” he said quickly, not quite meeting her eyes. “I’m sorry about snapping at you in the study room. I really didn’t mean to. I just got frustrated and I directed it at the wrong person. So, sorry. Again.”
Annie smiled up at him. “It’s okay. They were being really annoying, so I get it. Apology accepted.”
His blue eyes met hers, crinkling in the corners as he returned her smile. He leaned forward, going in for a kiss.
They both looked over at the man walking past, his eyes on them disapprovingly. He was pale and lanky, his dark hair greased back so that it was flat against his head. He had a briefcase in one hand, his boney fingers curled tightly around its handle. “This is a school, not a club. Do that in your own time,” he instructed as he disappeared into Annie’s forensics class.
“That must be my professor,” Annie murmured, watching the spot where he’d vanished.
Jeff shot an annoyed look at the door. “Prude.” He turned back to Annie with a boyish grin, sneaking a quick kiss before walking away from her, headed towards his class. “See you at lunch!”
“I’m telling you, it’ll be fine,” Annie repeated, continuing their earlier discussion. She was seated across from Jeff in the cafeteria, their hands clasped together, resting gently between them in the middle of the table. She couldn’t understand Jeff’s persistent doom and gloom attitude about all of this study group drama. She was sure that by tomorrow Jeff would be feeling foolish about it if he would just let it blow over.
Jeff shook his head. “It’s not that simple. This isn’t some Disney Channel show.”
Annie narrowed her eyes at him. “You do know that I don’t watch the Disney Channel, right?”
He gave her a playful grin. “You mean you’re not in the Hannah Montana demographic?”
“Hannah Montana isn’t even on TV anymore.” Jeff raised his eyebrows at her in amusement and she froze as she quickly realized what she’d said. “You don’t have to watch Disney Channel to know that!” she said, hurriedly backtracking, “I read magazines! Miley Cyrus –”
Jeff’s laughter cut her off. She wanted to call him a jerk but she couldn’t help but laugh, too. She loved their banter; the ease of conversation between them. And she loved his laugh. This was what their summer had been like. Just two people who genuinely enjoyed each other’s company spending their time together. She didn’t get how anyone could see this as wrong.
The sound of Shirley clearing her throat brought them both up short. Annie watched as the smile vanished from Jeff’s face. He followed Shirley’s eyeline to where their hands were still entwined on the table top and quickly let go, placing both hands in his lap. He looked uncomfortable.
Annie opened her mouth, intending to tell Jeff that he didn’t have to do that, but before she could speak he was getting to his feet. “I’ve probably got a class or something,” he said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the student lounge. He paused, looking like he wanted to say more, but instead just spun around and headed for the door, evidently intent on getting out of the cafeteria as quickly as possible. The only thing that stopped Annie from chasing him down were her friends sliding into the booth on either side of her, trapping her between them. Britta and Abed had her pinned in.
Annie turned her glare to Shirley. “Why did you do that?” she demanded. “You were fine in class.”
“I’m just letting the man know I don’t approve,” Shirley said as she slid in next to Pierce and Troy, her purse in her lap.
“He knows you don’t approve.”
“Then I’m reminding him.”
Annie stabbed angrily at the food on her tray in front of her. “You know, he told me you guys would react like this,” she said, laying the guilt on as thick as she could. “But I told him you wouldn’t. I said that you were our friends and that you wouldn’t do that to us. Now you’ve turned me into a liar. He was already feeling bad about our age difference and you’re making it worse.”
“He feels bad about the age difference?” Britta asked. She sounded surprised.
“It bothers him a lot,” Annie answered. Jeff was a person with human emotions, yet people were always so shocked when they repeatedly had to relearn that fact.
“Then why is he with you?” Pierce asked. “Not that he’s not lucky to be with you,” he quickly added. “You’re a catch. But if he’s got a problem with it then why doesn’t he date a man his own age?”
Annie shyly pushed her food around her plate. Despite all the drama it had caused, this was still a relatively new relationship and talking about it was kind of embarrassing. “Because he likes me,” she said softly. “And I like him.”
“Loves,” Abed corrected.
She blushed and kept her eyes on her plate. Right. Loves.
“And you’re really not sleeping with him?”
Annie’s head snapped up at Britta’s question. “Why are you so fixated on that! No, we are not having sex. He said I get to set the pace. Now drop it!”
There was a short beat of silence before Britta said, “Geez. If Winger’s not getting any, then it must be love.”
Annie put her face in her hands, but luckily Shirley swooped in to save her from further torment. Apparently Ben had done something adorable last week and she wanted to show off the pictures. The rest of lunch was spent oohing and ahing over the photos on Shirley’s phone.
Jeff leaned against the wall of lockers in the business hall and stuffed his hands into his pockets, his shoulders hunching forward. Today had sucked. This had not been how he wanted to kick off his last semester at Greendale. He hated fighting with the study group. It tended to make him miserable. And this time it wasn’t just some dumb argument about an overrated rock band or which class to take together. It was like he could feel the group fracturing and he really needed to make things right again. One broken family was enough for one person, he didn’t need two.
The door across from him swung open. Class was over. He watched as the students streamed out, heading off in all directions, Shirley among them. Jeff pushed away from the wall and made his way through the crowd, falling in step with her as she headed down the hall.
“Shirley,” he greeted.
She glanced up at him. “Jeffery.”
She kept walking and Jeff stayed beside her, watching his feet. They’d made it to the end of the hallway before he finally spoke. “Can we talk?” he asked. “I just really need to explain some things. I don’t want our senior year ruined because of a fight. I know we fight all the time, but this just feels different and –”
Shirley stopped short and Jeff came to a halt beside her. “Jeff, we’re not fighting. This isn’t a fight. I’m just disappointed. I thought you had better sense than this.”
She held up her hand. “This isn’t something you can talk your way out of. This isn’t a game. That little girl has her whole future ahead of her. You have no business dating someone that’s young enough to be your daughter!”
Jeff flinched. “She’s not a little girl. And I’m not that old.”
“Jeffery –” Shirley began but Jeff cut her off.
“I know this isn’t a game. I’m not playing at anything. I’m not – I wouldn’t do that. Not to her.” Shirley regarded him skeptically. He didn’t know how to make her understand. He wasn’t good at this stuff, this opening up crap. “I’m not saying forget my past. I know my track record isn’t great but this is different. I swear.”
Shirley sighed. “I know you have a good heart,” she said, her tone calm and understanding. “I know how much you care. But you try so hard not to that sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s really going on with you. I just want you to understand that I’m in Annie’s corner on this one. I really don’t think you’ve thought this through. Annie is young, yes, but that’s not my only issue. She’s also the type of person that doesn’t take relationships lightly. How is this going to play out for her? How is this going to affect her and her future? What’s going to happen to her when this ends?”
Jeff’s stomach twisted and he dropped his gaze, staring unseeingly at the tile floor. It was amazing how she had managed to get everything both totally right and absolutely wrong at the exact same time. He knew how this would end and Annie wasn’t the victim here. Annie would be fine.
“Just think about it,” Shirley said as she turned her back and walked away, heading for her last class.
Jeff remained where he was, watching the distance between them grow.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about it.”